A person can come of age at any time. But in the movies, a lot of that growing up seems packed into the summer. Especially for boys.
That's when a lad can hang out on the beach, come to some sort of arrangement with girls and endure entirely too much of his closely observed family for his own good.
The Way, Way Back is a semi-nostalgic coming-of-age dramedy from the folks who wrote The Descendants. It's about a shy, put-upon boy, his long-suffering mother, the mom's difficult new beau and the vacation where a lot of these issues come to a head.
Liam James plays 14-year-old Duncan, whose relationship with Trent (Steve Carell), the well-off creep with whom mother Pam (Toni Collette) is living, is summed up on the drive to Trent's beach house. Size yourself up, Trent says, and tell me how you'd rank on a scale of 1 to 10.
The kid shrugs, hems and haws, and says he'd give himself a "6."
"I think you're a 3."
Trent is a bully, a guy moving this relationship with Pam, Duncan and Trent's daughter from a previous marriage into "a family." A long stay at his house on the Massachusetts shore, where Trent has friends and "history," will be the test. A boozy, profane neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), and the fun couple Joan (Amanda Peet) and Kip (Rob Corddry) ensure that the kids will get an eyeful of adults reliving their more irresponsible past: the '80s, with pot, beer and infidelity in the mix.
Lovely Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) catches Duncan's eye. But it's not until he falls into the clutches of slacker smart-aleck Owen (Sam Rockwell) that things look up. Owen lures Duncan into working at Water Wizz, the aged water park that he manages — whenever he manages to be in the mood to manage it. Duncan learns to ogle bikini babes on the water slides and how to sarcastically win over that special someone — in Owen's case, Caitlyn (Maya Rudolph). During the course of a few weeks, Duncan's secret job teaches him his true self-worth.
What directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, actors-turned-Oscar-winning screenwriters, have done is mash up assorted vacation comedies — especially Meatballs — into a mother-son versus mother's boyfriend melodrama. Rockwell has the amusing goof-off mentor role that Bill Murray played at the beginning of his career, and Collette and Carell et. al act out some of the darker corners of Beaches and Little Miss Sunshine.
Both writer-directors have chewy bit parts in the film as water park employees, which further adds to the scruffy, offhanded feel of The Way, Way Back. Trent has restored an ancient station wagon, with its rearmost rear- facing "way, way back" seat giving the film its title. And in this beach town, '80s music is still the rage. The screenwriters try to avoid writing a period piece about their fondly remembered past but don't quite pull it off.
Like The Kings of Summer, the kids often take a back seat to the adult players here, with Carell, in a rare bad-guy role, creating a fully formed jerk with none of the broad caricature touches that made his career. Collette makes Pam a pitiable figure — smart enough to see who Trent is, too broken to think she deserves any better. Janney is broad and loud and never funnier than when Betty is telling people how to talk to her son with the lazy eye: "Just stare at the bridge of his nose. That's what I do."
Rockwell, playing another in a long line of larger-than-life eccentrics, turns the frustrated stand-up comic Owen into a slacker icon — saying "Don't let the Dahmer glasses fool you" when introducing Duncan to the concession stand clerk (Rash), and dispensing random bits of quirky advice.
The Way, Way Back tries too hard to be all things to all audiences — kids learning about love and life, adults seeing themselves, boozily nostalgic for their youth. But the performances and the ready supply of one-liners make this an amusing look at a new generation getting lost down memory lane.
'The Way, Way Back'
PG-13 for thematic elements, language, some sexual content and brief drug material. Fox Searchlight. 1:43. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Kentucky.